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Brooklyn Center Schools weigh options after losing levy

Last Friday, Keith Lester, who is the superintendent of Brooklyn Center Schools, finally got a letter from the state Department of Education he’d been waiting for for weeks. The official calculation of the amount of revenue that would be generated if his district’s levy request passed this fall, it had been held up by the state shutdown.

Keith Lester
Keith Lester

If Brooklyn Center residents voted to renew the district's operating referendum, it showed, property-tax bills actually would go down about 5.5 percent. Normally, Lester would have gotten the notice in August — plenty of time to tell voters how a yes vote would affect them.

Held via mail-in ballot, the election was essentially over, however. The Secretary of State's Office had been concerned that voters would confuse it with a primary being held Sept. 13, so Lester and the school board agreed to move it up 10 days. 

Tuesday, Lester learned that the levy was rejected 626-524. Would the news that taxes would go down have made a difference to the 102 voters who defeated it? Who knows.

"I don't know what to expect anymore," the superintendent said yesterday. "The kids showed up this morning and they expect the same things they expect every year."

Pulls rabbits from hats
Lester is far too familiar with irony. Superintendent of the impoverished district since 2005, he has kept the lights on largely by pulling rabbits from hats. He applies for grant after grant, begs local businesses and alums for donations and even laid off the district's lone librarian.

Still, he had to find $2 million to cut for the current school year. Over the summer, he had to cut all 11 of the teachers who coached the district's struggling elementary pupils in math and reading. Their intensive work had been paying off with rising test scores.

Like many Minnesota districts, Brooklyn Center had asked voters to approve a larger levy this year to compensate for cuts in state aid. Failing that, it and more than 120 other districts asked if residents would simply renew current levies.

Most of those elections are still upcoming and face unusual opposition from state GOP lawmakers who would have voters believe that schools actually are in line for windfalls in the next biennium. Lawmakers traditionally stay out of referendum campaigns.

Heated rhetoric
Yet the rhetoric — and some of the same misleading numbers — showed up in letters published last week in the Brroklyn Center Sun Post. "I received a card from Earle Brown Elementary announcing its open house equally in Spanish and English," said one. "We need to pass a property tax so our schools can provide materials in languages other than English? Preposterous. This is America; we speak English."

"It gets worse," the writer continued. "If you can't speak English, you cannot be a citizen. Thus, it appears the referendum is also meant to subsidize illegal aliens. One wonders how an American student feels sitting next to an illegal alien knowing the alien is taking resources meant to fund the American kid's own education."

Home to some 29,000 people, Brooklyn Center skews Democrat. Which means the 1,150 who voted likely have strong opinions on the matter, which in turn suggests anti-tax crusaders were paying more attention than parents and senior citizens — typically the voters who carry referenda.

Too late for November ballot
Lester has asked the Education Department for permission to hold another vote this year. But, because of the amount of notice required to call an election, it's too late to get it on the November general election ballot.

As a result, the question might simply go before the same voters. The last time the request was put before them, 1,500 turned out. The district lost by 150 votes.

If the levy is voted down a seventh time, property taxes will go down 15 percent in the district, and Lester will be on the hunt for at least $600,000 worth of cuts for the 2012-2013 school year. The levy the district would like to renew costs the average homeowner about $5 a month.

"We can't go to people's homes and walk them to the polls," he said. "For us, the message is we need to get the word out about what we're accomplishing and what's at stake."

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Comments (12)

"The Secretary of State's Office had been concerned that voters would confuse it with a primary being held Sept. 13, so Lester and the school board agreed to move it up 10 days."

So the typical motivation for holding excess levy referendum votes seperately from general elections, to hold down turnout, bit them in the rear.

Perhaps, if the district would focus more on academics and less on things like no-cost medical, dental and mental health services for all children in the district *and community* there would be a few more dollars left in the till.

Actually, it's the 52 voters who defeated the levy. 52 changed votes would have put the levy over the top.


D'oh! My math skills are clearly not at grade level, nor do I make adequate yearly progress!

“…a few more dollars in the till.” Indeed, it would be useful in this context, Beth, if Mr. Swift’s implications were addressed. What portion of the district budget is devoted to providing medical, dental and mental health services for children in the district and, as Mr. Swift is careful to italicize, *the community.* Would eliminating those services change the numbers enough to hire back the librarian and… some? … a few? … all? …none? of the tutors who had to be laid off when the funds dried up?

Those tutors were, of course, part of the academic focus Mr. Swift so desires, as do I and most citizens, so having to lay them off makes that academic focus more difficult, but no matter. Maybe all materials will be in English.

Since the district budget is the focus today, I’m reminded of another issue I meant to address in yesterday’s discussion of test scores and “outlier” schools that seems relevant here, as well. That issue is interscholastic sports. The district where I taught (and was a head coach for 15 seasons) spent about 10% of its annual budget on interscholastic athletics. I don’t mean physical education or intramural sports, but sports contests between district schools, and between district schools and schools from other districts. This involved coaching salaries, a plethora of sport-specific equipment for both the school and the student involved, indoor or outdoor facilities to play the contests, whatever they were, bus transportation to and from the contests, paying officials, and an inordinate amount of time and energy on the part of coaches and students. Football practices at my school routinely ran 3 hours, 5 days a week, when school was in session, and before classes started, those August practices were “two-a-days,” with morning and afternoon/evening sessions, plus a half-day session on Saturday.

While all of it was assembled under the aegis of “student activities,” the fact was that we never dismissed classes early to have an assembly to celebrate the semester’s honor roll students, nor did we have an assembly to honor a student who was selected as a Rhodes Scholar. We did, however, routinely have school assemblies to promote the school's sports teams for the upcoming season. Some (not all) teaching colleagues who refused to let band or theater students out of class early to play in a concert or attend a theater field trip had no problem at all excusing athletes early so that they could play in the contest of the day.

I was wondering yesterday how much, if any, of Concordia Creative Learning Academy’s budget was spent on interscholastic athletics. While I HAVE read of charter schools with at least some interscholastic sports teams, my impression is that those are a distinct minority. In Concordia’s case, my budgetary guess would be zero, and I’d be inclined to argue that it might be a significant reason why Concordia’s academic program seems stronger than most.

Perhaps if Brooklyn Center’s school board put the sports programs on the chopping block it would get the community’s attention more readily than printed flyers from the superintendent.

If nothing else, this election proves what has already been said elsewhere by others, and more elegantly than I can do it: “A determined minority can use democratic means to undermine democracy.” Offhand, it looks like the district needs to get out the vote.

You're both can be right. You could say that 52 voters could change their minds, or 102 more could have been convinced to show up at the polls. Either scenario would have changed the outcome.

" would be useful in this context, Beth, if Mr. Swift’s implications were addressed."


Boy, am I used to that sound from defenders of the status quo!

Ray, can you explain what you meant by this:

"Those tutors were, of course, part of the academic focus Mr. Swift so desires, as do I and most citizens, so having to lay them off makes that academic focus more difficult, but no matter."

I agree that laying off tutors detracts from the academic focus, so why do you say it is "no matter"?

Most extra-curricular sports activities are well on their way to being self-supporting, Ray. In most of the schools I'm familiar with, parents are being asked to pay a fee for *each* sport their kids participate in (as opposed to a one time cost).

"It gets worse," the writer continued. "If you can't speak English, you cannot be a citizen."

While I agree that more effort should be put forth by immigrants to learn English, being able to speak it to be a citizen is not required. The United States has NO official language. Quite frankly, if it was required, my great grandparents would never have been citizens. And, as implied by the author of the very ignorant letter to the paper, nor would their kids, since they learned German growing up with German immigrants as parents. Fortunately, the US doesn't work that way or this nation probably would look more like Europe--a collection of small countries--than the USA.

Honestly, there should be a minimum amount of knowledge of the US's history and its laws before one can become, or remain, a citizen. The author of the letter to the editor would have been long ago replaced by an immigrant.

@ Mr. Swift:

I’ve never met Beth, but I don’t know that she is a “defender of the status quo.” My question stems from curiosity. I live near Brooklyn Center, and I’ve read at least a couple stories in the ‘Strib, only vaguely remembered, unfortunately, that suggest the school / community relationship there is relatively unique, especially in comparison to most suburban situations. Because their clinic setup is very different from the usual “school nurse” with which I’m familiar, I have no idea what the costs are to the district (and thus, the community) of providing those kinds of services.

On the one hand, it could be a gigantic boondoggle, and if so, criticism might be well-deserved, especially because the community’s resources are skimpy to begin with. On the other hand, it may be an innovative and cost-effective way to provide health services to a community that is less-than-affluent, and if those services are available to everyone, and obviously paid for by district taxpayers, perhaps applause, rather than criticism, is the appropriate response.

It would be interesting to find out, but since Beth isn’t the budget officer for the Brooklyn Center schools, or responsible for their PR efforts, I’d not be surprised if she didn’t have access to the relevant figures.

My “tutors” comment stems from an assumption that many of those receiving tutoring spoke English as a second language, or perhaps little or none at all, and was intended as sarcasm. Given the umbrage from some member of the peanut gallery in Brooklyn Center’s paper regarding an “open house” announcement in both English and Spanish, I was suggesting that printing everything in English only would eliminate the need for many of those tutors, since everyone would be forced to deal with English as a result.

The sarcasm intended was obviously not as clear as I thought.

As for sports, charging a kid’s family $100 to play baseball or football or tennis might help defray the cost of the coach’s or supervisor’s salary, or go toward buying the necessary uniform and / or equipment. That was my experience in another state, but I’ve made no attempt to coach anything in Minnesota public schools, so the fees may be higher and may be applied to different aspects of a specific athletic program here. Either way, the fees don’t begin to pay for the facilities necessary to stage the activity.

For what very little it’s worth, I’d like to see schools – public, private, charter and parochial – adopt the European model, wherein taxpayers as a whole contribute not a single dime to the maintenance or promotion of interscholastic sports. Where interscholastic sports exist, the funding is done through a “club” mechanism, including the fundraising for things like equipment and uniforms, and while there are some communities that have a soccer stadium, for example, that’s been paid for by the community, it’s a stadium available for use by any team from anywhere, if they’re willing to pay the rent for the game. I won’t be holding my breath, waiting for that model to be adopted in Minnesota.

My real objection to sports as part of a school program is academic. Practices and games basically work against what ought to be the primary goal of a family, a school, a faculty, and a school district in requiring the children of a community to attend school in the first place. That goal, especially if we’re going to continue to pass judgment on schools in terms of their generic test scores, has little or nothing to do with athletic prowess, which is, after all, largely genetically-based.

Re: What portion of the district budget is devoted to providing medical, dental and mental health services for children in the district and, as Mr. Swift is careful to italicize, *the community.* Would eliminating those services change the numbers enough to hire back the librarian and… some? … a few? … all? …none? of the tutors who had to be laid off when the funds dried up?

I've been tied up writing a story you'll hopefully see soon about Obama's NCLB announcement. Ergo, Ray, I don't have any numbers for you but I can tell you they add up to pretty much zero beyond space--which has been renovated and brought up to snuff by local businesses for free. Lester has cajoled service providers into donating services, coming up with personnel who can help students and their families obtain insurance, etc. He has requested grants for some programs. My recollection from the tour I got last year of his wrap-around wing is that a local eyecare company has even donated glasses and a grateful alum persuaded to donate cabinetry for the clinic spaces.

So no, eliminating services would not bring back the tutors. Nor would renewing the levy, necessarily. Renewal, if I understand correctly, would just maintain the tutorless status quo.

And while I agree with you philosophically about sports, I'm not sure Lester would. I am too sports-indifferent personally to know whether the district's athletics programs are desireable. but I do know that one of the small saving graces in Lester's life is that Brooklyn Center's pretty good track record at raising scores and smart use of attractive programming, like IB coursework, has attracted a large number of open-enrollment students, each accompanied by his or her own little revenue stream, aka state aid.

I want to add one thing: Brooklyn Center was among the first districts to strike on the notion of putting free or nearly free services in the same building as poor kids and their parents. And Lester is particularly good at getting up early and going, hat in hand, to the local Rotary breakfast, DOE grantwriting workshop or what have you.

But if you look at the story I posted Wednesday, about so-called odds-beating schools, and more to the point at some of the links embedded therein, you will see that many of the Twin Cities schools that get good academic results with impoverished kids now use this approach.

It alone will not close the gap--far from it. But neither will trying to test a kid who slept in a shelter and didn't get breakfast.

We can argue about it here, and we do need big changes elsewhere. But I tell you, it's a lightbulb moment watching an exasperated superintendent describe discovering how many of his non-reader kids *could not see well enough to read,* asking a local eyecare outfit to donate some specs and hearing him describe the subsequent improvement in "performance."

Thanks, Beth, for confirming my hunch regarding medical, dental and health care services for district children. I couldn’t dredge up details from the ‘Strib article I remembered reading, but I was guessing that much of the cost of the program beyond the previously little-or-unused space was basically zilch. That’s one of the reasons I included the line about bringing back the tutors – Mr. Swift’s innuendo that somehow significant district funds were being “wasted” on this health care program struck me as likely to be off-target.

I know of no public school districts that agree with me about sports, and if I were still teaching (and coaching), I’m sure I’d be regarded as a traitor in various locker rooms, including my own. Mr. Lester might be among the critics, and that’s OK. Being indifferent to sports, especially when you’re a coach, is somewhat out of the mainstream in this country. In truth, I’m not entirely indifferent to sports, but they’re essentially trivial, and our culture places far, far too much emphasis on them, especially in what is supposed to be an academic environment. I made a point of telling my players that I was a teacher (in the academic sense) first, a coach (a teacher in the athletic sense) second, and even when my principal wouldn’t support me, I insisted that players – if they wanted to play – had to maintain a 2.0 “C” average. Alas, my coaching colleagues thought that too demanding a standard.

Meanwhile, if Brooklyn Center is attracting students because of engaging academic programs, so much the better, and good for them. I’m well aware of the importance and relationship of state aid and attendance.

"While I agree that more effort should be put forth by immigrants to learn English, being able to speak it to be a citizen is not required."

From UCIS:

"To become a naturalized U.S. citizen, you must pass the naturalization test. At your naturalization interview, you will be required to answer questions about your application and background. You will also take an English and Civics test unless you qualify for an exemption or waiver."

One of these days Rachel, you're gonna get one right on the button.

If these services do indeed amount to "pretty much" zero financially, it still distracts from the school's supposed mission unless they are offered after school.

Look, I'm all for helping kids and for getting them medical care, and I applaud Lester for his concern and hard work. But when our schools are foundering academically, and way too many of them *are* foundering, I'd hope his focus, and the school's would be there...which means that I do agree with Ray that sports should be set way down the list as well.

BTW, the Saint Paul public schools conducts "health care" clinics in many schools which are primarily focused on handing out birth control to the students. This "health care" is farmed out, at considerable cost, to "Health Start".

So without hard numbers, you'll forgive me for retaining my skepticism.